Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for February 18

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 18, 2024

Mark 1:9-15

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

The wilderness isn’t always a physical place. It isn’t always a burning desert or some place way out in the woods.

Sometimes the wilderness is a medical diagnosis that changes everything and makes the weeks and months ahead look foreboding. Sometimes the wilderness is a struggling marriage that makes your home a challenging place to be rather than a place of comfort and refuge. Sometimes the wilderness is grief over the loss of a loved one, whose absence in your life aches like an amputated limb. Sometimes the wilderness is feeling lost and alone in the world, even when you’re surrounded by people. Sometimes the wilderness is a feeling of bewilderment (there’s a great word). Sometimes it is that feeling of confusion and anxiety and even despair when life feels overwhelming and out of control.

When Jesus entered the wilderness, he was facing more than the elements. For him, the wilderness was not only a physical place. It was a place where a spiritual battle took place. For forty days, Jesus was tempted by Satan. In the other gospels we get the details of what these temptations were: Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. He was tempted to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple in order to prove that God would rescue him. He was tempted to take hold of all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down and worship the evil one. St. Mark, however, doesn’t get specific. Rather than three dramatic battles, Mark describes the temptations as a slow burn. For him, it is enough to say that “he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” The wilderness wasn’t just a physical place with physical challenges. The wilderness was forty days of spiritual attack.

While it was the Spirit who drove Jesus into the wilderness, God did not leave Jesus out there alone to fend for himself. God equipped Jesus with resources for survival in this wilderness. First of all, when Jesus went out into the wilderness, his hair was still wet from his baptism! He still had God’s voice ringing in his ears, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Jesus went into the wilderness with a promise. He went into the wilderness with an identity that helped him endure that season of spiritual attack. God also provided him with angels to wait on him in the wilderness. God provides these same resources for wilderness survival to us.

Today is not only the first Sunday in Lent. It is also the commemoration day for Martin Luther, who died on this date, February 18, in 1546. One of the more exciting episodes in Luther’s life was when he was kidnapped by his own prince and taken into protective custody at the Wartburg Castle. He had just been declared an outlaw by the emperor after refusing to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms. There was a warrant out for his arrest, and a death sentence was a very real possibility if he were to be captured. So, his sympathetic prince kidnapped him and hid him away in the Wartburg Castle.

Luther spent 10 months in protective custody. He used the time productively, translating the Bible into common German, but it was also for Luther a time in the wilderness. It was a season of spiritual attack. He was isolated and alone. His future was uncertain at best. His very life was in danger. Luther began to experience spiritual despair, which he attributed to the devil. He described the evil one as being like a fly buzzing around his head as he tried to do his work, distracting him by tempting him to give in to his fears. At one point, Luther famously threw an ink well at the devil, leaving a stain on the wall that you can still see today.

The way Luther defended himself against these attacks is instructive. He would remind himself over and over again, “I am baptized. I am baptized.” This reminder strengthened him. He used it to shoo the devil away. God gave Luther a promise and an identity which helped him survive in the wilderness. Remembering that he was baptized helped him withstand these temptations to despair.

This is the power of baptism. This is what Peter writes in our epistle reading for today. Just as God used water to save Noah and his family, God uses water to save us. “Baptism now saves you,” Peter writes. Peter describes part of the power of baptism as being “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” It helps put our mind at ease. It is a comfort to us. We too have heard the Father speak to us, saying “You are my son, you are my daughter, my beloved,” and so we too can call on this promise for a good conscience whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness. We too can claim this identity for strength and peace of mind whenever we find ourselves under spiritual attack.

For a long time I didn’t know the date of my baptism. My home congregation gave me a quilt when I was ordained there, and one of the panels has a picture of the church with a line for my birthdate and a line for my baptism date. My birthday was there, but the baptism date line was blank. The church couldn’t find it in their records. My parents weren’t sure. My mom couldn’t find the baptism certificate. I never doubted that I was baptized, but around the time my own kids were baptized and we started celebrating their baptism anniversaries, it bothered me more and more that I didn’t know.

One day, back when we lived in southwestern Washington, I went out to the mailbox and there was a manila envelope. It was addressed to me. The return address was from my mom, who was living in Arizona at the time. I took it into the parsonage and opened it up, and inside was my baptism certificate. A picture of me with my mom and dad beside the font was paperclipped to the side. There was the date, July 18, 1971 – exactly two months after I was born.

This came in the midst of an awful week. I can’t even remember the details, but I remember being super anxious about things that were happening in my congregation at the time. I remember there were stressful things going on in my personal life. And here, out of the blue, came my baptism certificate. I remember standing over my kitchen table, looking at it and weeping. It wasn’t just that now I had the proof, like I wasn’t going to be saved without the paperwork in hand. It wasn’t just the picture, which meant so much to have. It wasn’t just that now, at last, I knew the date and could fill in that blank on my quilt. It was that at that moment I was reassured that I belonged to God. I was – I am – baptized. I have a promise and an identity that was bigger than the evil one who had been buzzing around my head.

Being reminded of our baptism is a powerful resource for surviving in the wilderness. When the evil one is flying around your head, you too can shoo him away by repeating to yourself, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” You can remember who and whose you are. You can remember that God has claimed you and made you his own, that you are his forgiven, beloved child.

Sometimes these resources for wilderness survival come through baptism. Other times they come through people. You see, God sends angels to wait on us too. God sends angels to help strengthen us in the wilderness. In fact, I saw one here just this last Sunday.

One of our members had major surgery to treat breast cancer this week. Last Sunday I watched as one of our other members, who had been through the same surgery herself years ago, went up to her. I couldn’t hear what was said, and it would have been rude to eavesdrop anyway, but I watched from across the narthex as they held each other’s hands. Their eyes were locked in on each other. It looked like the one was putting her strength into the other. There was some nodding and some tears and a hug. And our member with breast cancer walked away standing taller. I mean, she was visibly strengthened by the exchange.

For all the problems and frustrations of church life – and there are many – here is something beautiful about our life together in the church. There are these angel appearances we get to witness, or be part of ourselves – whether we’re on the giving end or the receiving end. This is just one particularly beautiful example. We also have angels ministering to people in the wilderness of addiction through the three addiction recovery groups we host here at OHLC. We have an angel in Pastor Laurie as she ministers to people in the wilderness of grief. We have angels ministering under the banner of Stephen Ministry. We have people who just informally find each other in our congregation and end up ministering to each other in various ways. God continues to send angels as we care for each other when one of us is in the wilderness.

Like our Lord Jesus, after we are baptized – whenever that happens in our lives – we are thrust out into the world and its wildernesses. As soon as the Word is spoken over us, the temptations begin. The evil one starts buzzing around our heads, trying to distract us, trying to get us to give in to our fears, trying to lure us into despair.

But God does not leave us to fend for ourselves. God gives us powerful resources for surviving in the wilderness. In Holy Baptism God has given us a promise we can use to shoo the devil away. God has given us an identity to call on and hold fast to. God sends angels to minister to us, to help us to be strong. Best of all, God sends us his Beloved Son, who meets us in the wilderness to assure us that he has already been there himself, and so we are never alone.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Sermon for Ash Wednesday – February 14, 2024

Sermon for Ash Wednesday – February 14th, 2024

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hearts are everywhere today. The grocery stores are filled with heart-shaped balloons and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate. Kids are coming home from school with heart-shaped candies and Valentine cards with hearts on them. Social media is flooded with them in various shades of red and pink.

Much has been made of the fact that Valentine’s Day is the same day as Ash Wednesday this year. What is interesting to me in light of this odd juxtaposition of holiday and holy day is that there are hearts all over our Ash Wednesday readings too.

But these hearts aren’t the sugary kind. They do not convey sweet or romantic sentiments. In the Bible, the heart represents our innermost being. The heart represents the core of who we are, our deepest self. It represents the center of the will. And more often than not, when the Bible is talking about the heart, it is because human beings have serious heart trouble! Such is the case in our readings for today.

First, we have the prophet Joel. Joel calls the people of Judah to brace themselves for a coming calamity. It is unclear whether Joel sees this calamity as a literal plague of locusts or as an invading Assyrian army, but neither option would have been good for the people of Judah. As this calamity bears down on them, he speaks God’s word to them, saying, “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart.”

In the face of this calamity, Joel calls the people to repent. He calls them to turn back to God. Their hearts have wandered away from God, as hearts often do. They have been half-hearted in their relationship with God. And so, through Joel, God says: “Return to me with all your heart.”

Through Joel, God also says, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” People used to show their repentance by tearing their clothing, or by putting on sackcloth. But God wanted something more here. He didn’t just want an outward display – he wanted a change inside! He wanted a heart that was broken as they recognized their sin, a heart willing to change, a heart which was ready to return to him.

This is what Ash Wednesday is all about. This is what Lent is all about. It isn’t about showing people how pious we are by what we give up. It isn’t just about the outward display of ashes on our heads. It is about returning to the Lord with all our heart, with all that we are. It is about having our hearts broken as we recognize our sin so that God can put them back together again. We can do this, Joel says, we can return to the Lord our God, because he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love!

Next we have Psalm 51. This psalm was written by King David after he was convicted by Nathan for the adultery and murder he committed out of his lust for Bathsheba. David’s heart had been broken in recognition of his sin. He saw that his sin was more than just a momentary lapse in judgement. It was condition. “Indeed, I was born steeped in wickedness,” David confesses. In this psalm he turns to God for forgiveness. “Remove my sins with hyssop,” he says, “and I will be clean; wash me and I will be as pure as snow.” And then a little later he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

David knows he can’t clean his own heart. He knows he needs God’s help. He knows he needs God’s saving power to purify his heart. And so, he turns to God in repentance and faith. He asks God to do for him what he cannot manage to do for himself: “Create in me a clean heart, O God!”

Likewise, through our extended confession coming up shortly we turn to God in repentance and faith, asking him to create in us clean hearts. We can’t clean our own hearts any more than we can do heart surgery on ourselves. But by turning to God in repentance and faith, we place our hearts in the hands of the One who can help us, the One who can give us clean hearts, the One who can restore us to the joy of his salvation.

We’ll talk about this more on Sunday when we begin our study of the Large Catechism, but in his discussion of the First Commandment, Luther describes idolatry as a heart issue.  It is a heart problem. Luther writes: “That…upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god. Therefore, it is the intent of this commandment to require such true faith and trust of the heart as regards the only true God, and rest in him alone.” He argues that whatever our hearts cling to for comfort or security are really our gods, and our heart problem is that these hearts of ours do a lot of clinging to lots of things that are not the one true God! Our hearts cling to money and possessions, to power and popularity, to superstitions and made-up religions, and above all, to the self.

This latter idolatry, the idolatry of the self, is especially pernicious in our day. We have at least three or four generations now who have grown up in a culture which tells us that life is about self-actualization, and the way to self-actualization is to follow our hearts. Isn’t that the theme of just about every Disney movie of the last couple decades? Every tawdry romance novel ever? Almost every self-help book?

From a biblical perspective, however, the last thing you want to follow is your heart! Most of the time, following your heart is the problem! The prophet Jeremiah says the human heart is the most deceitful of all things and desperately sick. Jesus said that it is out of the human heart that all evil intentions come. Why, then, would you want to follow your heart? The scriptures call us to follow God’s Word, which is the lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Christ calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. We are to follow the promptings of the Spirit, not the self and its fickle, deceitful heart.

This brings us to our gospel reading for today. Jesus commends to us a set of practices. He encourages us to give, to pray, and to fast. These are, of course, the traditional practices, or focal points, of Lent. We seek to be renewed in these practices of the Christian faith.

Jesus warns us against doing any of these things for the wrong reasons. We should not do them in order to be seen by others. We should not do them for outward show. This doesn’t mean we should hide our faith. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever pray in public, for instance. It means we shouldn’t put our faith on display to impress others or to draw attention to ourselves. We are to do these things for the sake of the Father, in response to his promises, not for our own self-glorification.

And then Jesus talks about our hearts! Jesus goes on to say, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Here’s the real reason we are invited to give, and to pray, and to fast. We give and pray and fast so that our hearts would rest in God. You see, when we give, we are learning to not cling so tightly to money and possessions. When we pray, we are centering our hearts on God. When we fast, voluntarily abstaining from something, we are training our hearts to not cling so tightly to worldly pleasures for our comfort and security. These are practices which lead to good heart health, spiritually speaking. Probably physically too!

The heart, Jesus is saying, will dwell on whatever a person treasures most. These practices of giving and praying and fasting help peel our fingers back from the idols we cling to so tightly. They help loosen our grip on our false gods, so that we can cling instead to “the only true God and rest in him alone.”

There are a surprising number of hearts in our scripture readings for Ash Wednesday. But these aren’t the sugary hearts of Valentine’s Day. Instead, these references in scripture point to our need for new hearts: hearts that return to the Lord our God, hearts that need to be cleaned, created anew by God’s purifying grace, hearts that need to be re-centered on the treasures of heaven.

These old hearts of ours are dust, and to dust they will return. But this Lord of ours is gracious and merciful. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Our hearts are safe in his hands.

In fact, he has a Valentine for us today. Even amidst the ashes he gives us a sign of his great love for us. He gives us his own body and blood, gifts from his own heart, so that his grace would run through our bloodstream, literally reaching our hearts, making them strong and clean and new even now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church

Lenten Book Study

Lenten Book Study

Beginning Sunday, February 18, our adult ed class will be studying Luther’s Large Catechism. Pick up a book in the church office ($12 suggested donation) and join us in the church library at 9:15am on Sunday mornings to discuss this gem, full of Luther’s wit and Biblical wisdom.

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – February 11, 2024

CLICK HERE for a worship video for February 11

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday – February 11, 2024

Mark 9:2-9

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

We are just coming out of a season known in the Pacific Northwest as “The Big Dark,” that season of gloomy weather that stretches from October to March, when the daylight hours are few. It can be a dreary time.

We do, however, get glimpses of what is to come on the other side of the Big Dark – especially in these latter weeks of the season. We get the odd 60-degree day. We get a break in the clouds. We notice that it is still light out at 4:30, and then 5. We get these glimpses of spring, even while it is still winter and mostly cold and damp and dark.

My wife and I live just up the hill from St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. Despite the weather, we’ve made a habit recently of taking walks in the early evening, and part of our route goes through their prayer garden behind their parking lot. Just this past week we were strolling through the Stations of the Cross in the prayer garden. It was a cold, drippy, dark day. The breeze was making our ears ache from the cold. Most of the plants in the garden are brown and limp and dormant, but just as we coming to the end of the pathway, we saw a little patch of brilliant yellow flowers. There they were, these bright, shockingly vibrant yellow crocuses. They were, I kid you not, just behind the stained-glass station depicting the Resurrection.

And so, in the dark, damp, cold twilight, there was this welcome glimpse of spring.

There was a little bit of Easter breaking out right there in the cold, hard ground – this brilliant glimpse of what is to come.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Throughout the season of Epiphany we have been catching glimpses of who Jesus is. On the first Sunday in the Epiphany season we heard God speak as Jesus was baptized, saying, “This is my Son, my beloved!” The next Sunday we heard Nathanael say to Jesus: “You are the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Then we heard that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises. A couple Sundays ago we heard a demon say to Jesus, “I know you are – the Holy One of God!” Last Sunday we learned that Jesus is a healer of bodies and a healer of souls.

If you’ve had good church attendance these past weeks of Epiphany, perhaps you’ve picked up on this theme. This season has been about getting to know Jesus. The readings were carefully selected by the crafters of the lectionary to give us these glimpses of who he is.

And now on the last Sunday in Epiphany, we follow Peter and James and John to the top of a high mountain for the biggest revelation yet. At the top of that mountain Jesus was transfigured before them. He became radiant with light. His clothes were whiter than anyone in that dusty country had ever seen. “Such as no one on earth could bleach them,” St. Mark tells us.

Something similar happened when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the commandments. Moses couldn’t look at God directly or he would die, so God hid him in the cleft of a rock, but simply being in close proximity to God caused Moses’ face to shine. When he came back down the mountain he had to wear a veil for days so he wouldn’t freak people out!

There’s an important difference, however, to what happened with Moses and what is happening with Jesus. The light on Moses’ face was reflected light. It was like the glow on your face from a camera flash. That’s not what’s happening here with Jesus. Jesus was “transfigured.” You might recognized the Greek word here. It is metamorpho, which means “changed from within.” The light Jesus was shining was emanating out of him. I love the phrase in our Hymn of the Day for today which describes it as “unborrowed light.” Jesus didn’t merely reflect God. He is God! He emanated God’s glory. In the transfiguration Jesus’ humanity was momentarily pulled back like a curtain to reveal his divinity.

Speaking of Moses, when Jesus was transfigured suddenly Moses was there too, and Elijah with him! Moses represented the law and Elijah represented the prophets and they were there with Jesus. For a moment they were in a holy huddle, with Jesus emanating this brilliant light from within.

Peter’s response to all of this was to propose a building project. His response was to suggest building three dwelling places, one for each of them. It was an idea so dumb that St. Mark sort of apologizes for him. “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” (I love Peter, because sometimes I say dumb things too.)

Just then a cloud came over the mountain, and from the cloud came a voice. God repeated what he had said at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the beloved.” Only now God included a command: “Listen to him!”

“You don’t need to build anything, Peter,” God was saying, “you need to listen to my Son.”

And what did Jesus then say? As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus told them to not say anything about what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

I think this is the key to understanding this whole scene, this entire epiphany. Jesus connects what happened on the mountaintop to what would happen a short time later when he would be raised from the dead. It’s like he’s telling these three disciples, “Spoiler alert! Don’t ruin the surprise! Keep this to yourselves for a while until the final episode airs, OK?” Jesus connects what happened in his Transfiguration with what would later happen in his Resurrection.

This great epiphany, then, is a glimpse of Easter. We see the supposedly dead and gone Moses and Elijah very much alive and chatting Jesus up. We are shown that death has no power over them! While Moses couldn’t look at God directly and live, here we see sinners like Peter, James, and John looking directly at God and not dying! We catch a glimpse of Christ’s power on full display as he emanates God’s glorious light.

This is not only a great epiphany; this is a glimpse, a foretaste, of Easter! It was a glimpse for Peter and James and John, and it is a glimpse for us too. And oh, how we need it. For there is a Big Dark among us that is more than seasonal. There is a darkness that plagues us that goes far beyond the weather. We see how the power of sin is at work in so many different insidious ways, wreaking havoc on our community and our country and our world. We see the darkness in our own hearts that sometimes has us acting coldly towards the people around us. There is that damp wind of sickness and sadness, death and despair that blows through our lives from time to time.

We long for light. We long for hope. We long for peace. We long for the new life of Easter.

Dear friends, the Transfiguration is like that brilliant patch of yellow flowers in full bright bloom in that prayer garden. The Transfiguration is our glimpse of Easter. In the Transfiguration, the light of Christ breaks into our darkness even now as he reveals his power and glory to us through his Word. God has come to us in his Son, and today we see his light shining into our lives.

This light changes things for us. C. S. Lewis once wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” This light illuminates the truth of God’s will – for us and for the world. This light exposes our sin while at the same time illuminating our savior. In the end, Moses and Elijah fade back into obscurity and there is only Jesus. His light shines with forgiveness and mercy for sinners. Salvation is through him alone. It does not come by our own righteousness, our own works of the law.  It is only Jesus. It is a free gift for all who place their trust in him.

This light illuminates the truth of our relationship status with God. It reveals to us that we are no longer under the curse of sin, and so we can know God. By the light of Christ we can look upon God and live! We can know God’s love and power and peace in our lives.

This light is a glimpse of the resurrection, in which Jesus overcomes the deepest darkness of all, the darkness of death. He promises that it will not keep its grip on us. He promises to raise us up with him. He promises us eternal life in the place he himself has prepared for us.

The light of Christ is the light by which we see everything else.

If you want a glimpse that spring is coming, I really suggest you take a stroll through the prayer garden at St. Augustine’s. Trust me, you won’t burst into flames. If Father Chris is walking by, he will welcome you. If you want a glimpse of spring, take a stroll over there.

But if you need a glimpse of Easter, behold the Lord Jesus on the mountaintop today. If the darkness has seemed overwhelming to you in recent days or weeks,

today he gives you this glimpse of his brilliant glory and power. He gives you a glimpse of his true identity as God, assuring you that everything he has said is trustworthy and true. And he has said. “Your sin is forgiven.”He has said, “This is my body, given for you.”

He has also said, “Do not be afraid.” He has said, “Because I live, you will live also.” He has said, “No one will snatch you out of my hands. He has said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Today our Lord Jesus gives you a glimpse of the future he has in store for you and for all of us, a glimpse of that day when his light will vanquish every last darkness, and we will bask in his glory forever.

In the meantime, listen to him.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church



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